This blog post is courtesy of Kajal Dave, a Global Studies major who attended the ASU: Politics, Culture, and Society in Ghana program in Summer 2017. She is also a current Peer Advisor in the Study Abroad Office!
One of the most important parts of going abroad is figuring out how the locals travel. Sure, you can take a taxi or Uber when those are available. It can certainly be more convenient, and often you strike up a conversation with the driver who can tell you where the best places to go out are. But these forms of transportation will add up, and you don’t want to blow your budget on traveling in a city.
While in Ghana, I had an internship at the Human Rights Advocacy Center. The commute was long, and taking an Uber or taxi would have been very expensive. So I traveled as the locals did. London has the Tube, Amsterdam has bicycles, and Ghana has tro-tros.
A tro-tro is an unmarked van, often old and run down. Sometimes the metal is rusty. Sometimes the doors don’t close all the way. Sometimes the tro-tro stalls in the middle of the road and the driver has to jump out to do some quick maintenance. Occasionally, it will have decals like “God is good” or more cryptic things like “That Judgement Day”. Tro-tros may also have Ghanaian, American, Canadian, or other flags. Memorably, I once rode in a tro-tro that was showing a Hindi movie. It made my hour and a half commute much more bearable. Another form of entertainment, or at least a way to pass the time, are the preachers who will start giving sermons on tro-tros.
A tro-tro isn’t something most people in America would climb into without a second thought. To get on a tro-tro, you have to know where the stops are. To know where the stops are, you have to ask a local. There is no website or handy guide or signs to tell you; trust me, I looked. The websites that do exist are only slightly helpful.
Once you find a stop, you have to wait for the tro-tro that is on the route you want to take. There are two people who run tro-tros: the drivers and the mates. The driver isn’t important; all he does is drive. The mate is the one that collects the money, shouts stops, and leans halfway out of windows to shout at people on the sidewalk. Picture this: You’re standing on the side of the road, waiting for these rumbling old vans to pass by and hear “Circle-circ-circ!” or “Labadi Labadi Labadi!” or “Madinaaaaa!” To be heard over the sounds of cars and people chattering, the mates’ make their voices nasally and loud. It’s odd until you get used to it.
Once you hear your route, you flag down the tro-tro, get in, and take a seat. It’s cramped and humid, and the only relief comes from sitting next to an open window. You pay the fare to the mate, and then sit back and wait until your stop is called. When it’s time to go, the mate will call your stop. You can either make a motion as simple as nodding your head towards him or shout the name of the stop back. Once I got this down, getting around Accra, the capital, was easy. It took a long time to get to work, but I had ebooks to enjoy and time to myself. I even used a long-distance tro-tro to go on a weekend trip.
Traveling the way the locals do cuts down on expenses and really does give you a more authentic experience. I recommend that all study abroad students figure out the local transportation system. Most Americans, unless they are from big cities, don’t use public transportation often. Learning how people in other places get around is eye-opening, and it reveals more about culture than you might think. Riding on tro-tros was stressful and difficult to get used to, but in the end it was a valuable experience that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.